Meaning and Examples of Inflectional Morphemes

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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The suffixes -er (as in smaller) and -est (as in smallest) are examples of inflectional morphemes. Sharon Vos-Arnold / Getty Images

In English morphology, an inflectional morpheme is a suffix that's added to a word to assign a particular grammatical property to that word.

Inflectional morphemes serve as grammatical markers that indicate tense, number, possession, or comparison. Inflectional morphemes in English include the bound morphemes -s (or -es); 's (or s'); -ed; -en; -er; -est; and -ing.

Unlike derivational morphemes, inflectional morphemes do not change the essential meaning or the grammatical category of a word.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "[O]nly English nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs--all open classes of words--take inflectional affixes. Closed classes of words . . . take no inflectional affixes in English. Inflectional affixes always follow derivational ones if both occur in a word, which makes sense if we think of inflections as affixes on fully formed words. For example, the words antidisestablishmentarianism and uncompartmentalize each contain a number of derivational affixes, and any inflectional affixes must occur at the end: antidisestablishmentarianisms and uncompartmentalized.

    "We can also see . . . that not only does English have few inflectional affixes but also that possessive, plural, and third-person singular are identical in form; they are all -s. The past participle affix -ed is also sometimes identical in form to the past tense affix, -ed. This lack of distinction in form dates back to the Middle English period (1100-1500 CE), when the more complex inflectional affixes found in Old English were slowly dropping out of the language for a variety of reasons . . .."
    (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth, 2010)
  • Inflectional Morphemes and Derivational Morphemes
    "The difference between derivational and inflectional morphemes is worth emphasizing. An inflectional morpheme never changes the grammatical category of a word. For example, both old and older are adjectives. The -er inflection here (from Old English -ra) simply creates a different version of the adjective. However, a derivational morpheme can change the grammatical category of a word. The verb teach becomes the noun teacher if we add the derivational morpheme -er (from Old English -ere). So, the suffix -er in modern English can be an inflectional morpheme as part of an adjective and also a distinct derivational morpheme as part of a noun. Just because they look the same (-er) doesn't mean they do the same kind of work.

    "Whenever there is a derivational suffix and an inflectional suffix attached to the same word, they always appear in that order. First the derivational (-er) is attached to teach, then the inflectional (-s) is added to produce teachers."
    (George Yule, The Study of Language, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • Inflectional Morphemes and Meanings
    "[W]hereas a derivational morpheme relates more to the identity of a word itself (in that it more directly affects the meaning of the stem), an inflectional morpheme relates the word to the rest of the construction, motivating a position on the very periphery of the word. . . .

    "An inflectional morpheme does not have the capacity to change the meaning or the syntactic class of the words it is bound to and will have a predictable meaning for all such words. Thus, the present tense will mean the same thing regardless of the verb that is inflected, and the dative case will have the same value for all nouns. Semantic abstraction and relativity do not mean that there is little or simple meaning involved; inflectional categories are never merely automatic or semantically empty. The meanings of inflectional categories are certainly notoriously difficult to describe, but they exhibit all the normal behavior we expect from cognitive categories, such as grounding in embodied experience and radial structured polysemy (see Janda 1993)."
    (Laura Janda, "Inflectional Morphology." The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford University Press, 2007)